BEIRUT: When storms lashed Lebanon in January, they delivered an abysmal reminder of its garbage crisis: a coastline carpeted in trash. Being the middle of winter, Lebanon’s famed beaches were mostly deserted after the mess. But one group could still be found diving headfirst into the waste.
Thanks to the storms, Lebanese surfers have enjoyed excellent waves this winter. But the worsening water quality is forcing them to make tough choices about an activity that many say is more a lifestyle than a sport.
Surfers say their intimate relationship with the sea makes them painfully aware of the damage being done to Lebanon’s coastline.
“It makes me deeply sad to see up close how nature is being destroyed by mankind,” Fernanda Paredes, who has surfed in Lebanon since 2013, said. “It’s repulsive to have to paddle between plastic and I worry about swallowing dirty water.”
“If you surf during a storm you will see just how much garbage the sea is throwing at the beach,” Paul Abbas, who described himself as Lebanon’s only surfboard-maker, said.
Until recently, he said, boards had to be privately imported from abroad. But local production has made surfing more accessible and Abbas estimates the surfing community now numbers more than 200. He says customers are proud to own a board marked “made in Lebanon.”
Within that growing community is an increasing number of women, according to Lena Allam.
She fits surfing in alongside studying and working, and says there are now at least 15 serious female surfers in the country. “Girls are getting more involved in the sport and it’s amazing to see how the community is growing,” she said.
Along with plastic waste, surfers and other beachgoers in Lebanon say they contend with high levels of organic pollution and toxic chemicals. Storms that produce ideal waves also bring heavy rain that washes months of accumulated waste into the sea.
Lebanese surfers have learned to accept the risks, says Ali al-Amine, owner of the surf school Surf Lebanon. “We hope we are going to enjoy getting kegged and hopefully not contract some gnarly virus or god knows what else,” he said. In the language of surfing, ‘kegging’ is riding inside the wave as it breaks and forms a hollow tube.
Surf Lebanon is located at the country’s most popular break, “Mustafa’s A-frame” at Jiyyeh Marina, just north of the Sidon power barge and south of the controversial Costa Brava landfill.
Costa Brava, one of several overflowing dumps marked for further expansion, has already been expanded – allegedly into the sea.
Waste thought to be “100 times more toxic than raw sewage” is being dumped along the coast, Paul Abi Rached, president of a coalition of environmental NGOs known as Lebanon Eco Movement, told The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi last year.
Reclaiming land using potentially toxic fill has already happened at BIEL, Karantina and Burj Hammoud in Beirut.
The government has been slow to act, and in places has actively pursued plans that could risk the environment – such as building new coastal landfill sites. Despite protests in 2015 against garbage piling up in the streets that drew thousands, the public reaction has been largely muted.
While beach resorts that cater to a prosperous clientele could influence action on coastal pollution, given their presumed interest in maintaining clean beaches and water, Abbas alleges that many also exacerbate the issue by piping raw sewage straight to the beach.
The surfers say that the pollution and an increasingly privatized coastline combine to hamper exploration of Lebanon’s water sports potential.
Surfers say they avoid breaks around areas they think are the most polluted, like Beirut and Jounieh Bay, but access to many other areas is across private property. In some areas, surfers have negotiated access to the coast with property owners.
Given the lack of public space and sharp class divisions in Lebanon, surfing stands out as a social leveler, surfers say. “When you are out at sea you are just in your board shorts with your board, there are no titles out there,” Amine said.
Amine promotes surfing as a healthy lifestyle for local youth, including 17-year-old Syrian refugee Ali Kassem who he saw trying his luck in the waves near Jiyyeh with a makeshift board. Amine took Kassem under his wing, offering him a spot at his surf school and giving him a wetsuit and board. Kassem’s story was picked up by international media in June 2017 and told in outlets around the world.
Other water-reliant communities such as fishermen are becoming more vocal about the mismanaged landfill and inadequate sewage and stormwater infrastructure.
In 2017, fishermen protested repeatedly at the over-capacity Burj Hammoud landfill – which sits directly on the shoreline – in response to unprecedented quantities of plastic in the sea.
Surfers say they are now developing more awareness of the possibilities for action. Abbas and others frequently take to social media to highlight waste mismanagement, irresponsible coast-use by businesses and a public attitude that they say shuns personal responsibility for trash. Abbas is working with the NGO Recycle Lebanon to make surfboards from compacted cigarette butts.
“The environment should be taken care of by the people and by the government and both are failing their responsibility,” he said.
In Europe, the U.S. and Australia, surfers can often be found leading the fight against ocean pollution, using their shared passion and energy to build lobbying campaigns and activist organizations.
But opaque decision-making and legal frameworks make it difficult for activists and hinders their impact in Lebanon. Amine says vested interests can also be added to the list of things that hamper efforts to lobby for better coastal conditions.
He complains of an all-round lack of education about the sea and the environment.
The fledgling community in Lebanon relies on personal action and raising awareness about the sea by inviting others to take up the challenging sport.
“We can take actions to save our waters and marine life and be happy surfing at the same time,” Allam says. “But doing it on a small scale is not a sustainable solution – that should come from the government.”
Abbas said a 2017 music festival that left a Jbeil beach carpeted in confetti and trash prompted him and other surfers to begin discussing ways “to tell people about places where environmental crimes are being done to the sea and to the beach.” Amine has more faith in small-scale behavioral change. “We tell people to try to avoid single-use plastics. I tell my kids if you can hold onto it, you don’t need a plastic bag ... because if you go into the water that bag is eventually going to slap you in the face.”